I’m pretty sure I won’t have any friends left once they’ve read. That’s because no matter how you break that candy bar, and no matter how many headlines you’ve seen about the health benefits of chocolate, the scientific evidence remains pretty slim.
Sure, you probably know that “white chocolate” (which doesn’t contain any chocolate at all) and milk chocolate (which is loaded with sugar and fat) are not healthy choices. But while dark chocolate is a better choice, it’s not a healthy one.
When I did an Internet search, I found plenty of articles saying that chocolate may lower the risk of certain cancers, lower blood pressure and reduce the risks of diabetes, stroke and heart disease.
As a journalist, I know better than to believe everything I read, especially if it’s melting in my mouth. So I did a little investigating to get to the bottom of the question: Is chocolate healthy?
The top Google result for that question was a report (“Can chocolate be good for my health?”) on the Mayo Clinic website. To help me fact-check it, I called Marion Nestle, the much-respected professor of food and nutrition studies at New York University.
I read Nestle (who is no relation to the candy maker) the article’s lead paragraph, which states, in part, “chocolate’s reputation is on the rise, as a growing number of studies suggest that it can be a heart-healthy choice.”
She stopped me right there to note that it’s not chocolate but the flavanols in chocolate that might have potential benefits. Flavanols are abundant in cocoa beans, which yield cocoa powder, which is then used to make chocolate, she said.
But will readers understand that the amount of flavanols in a chocolate bar is not nearly enough to affect their health? No, Nestle said with obvious exasperation: “You’d have to eat an awful lot of chocolate to make a difference.”
Nestle told me that if I eat more chocolate to up my flavanol intake, I’m consuming a lot more calories and fat, as well — which will be bad for my health. That’s because flavanol-rich cocoa has a bitter taste, so candy manufacturers add lots of fats and sugars to create commercial — delicious-tasting — chocolate.
Alice Lichtenstein, a professor of nutrition science and policy at Tufts University, also said “the data don’t support using [chocolate] as a health food.” Why do so many think it is? “It sounds great so I think people like repeating it,” she said.
Lichtenstein is critical of many of the studies, which she reminded me tend to come out right before Valentine’s Day — our National Day of Chocolate.
Further dashing my hopes, Lichtenstein said that there is some research “suggesting biological effects, but those studies were done at high concentrations” of flavanols. To make her point, she told me about a study in the journal Nature Neuroscience that concluded people who consumed a high dose of cocoa flavanols performed much better on a memory test than those on a low-flavanol mixture. Wow, I thought. But then she added that a person would have to eat about “seven average-sized bars” daily to consume enough flavanol for this possible benefit.
To wrap up my “investigation,” I spoke to Katherine Zeratsky, a registered dietitian and licensed nutritionist at the Mayo Clinic and the author of “Can chocolate be good for my health?”
Is it, I asked? “I think it possibly can be,” she said. “It’s like so many other foods, it probably depends on how it’s consumed, how much is consumed. . . . ” From there, she moved quickly to the important difference between cocoa beans and chocolate, pointing out as Nestle had earlier that it’s the flavanol-rich cocoa beans that “are potentially health promoting” — not chocolate. (A Mayo Clinic representative told me that their “content is not influenced in any way by benefactors and donations to Mayo Clinic.”)
There’s that problem again: With every delectable mouthful, the cocoa beans in chocolate offer tiny additional doses of flavanols — which are good for you — but far more additional fat, sugar and calories — which are bad. It’s not a healthy trade-off.
Zeratsky urged people to look for chocolate that is 65 percent or higher made from cocoa, “where we may see some health benefits.” That means only dark chocolate since milk chocolate doesn’t have that much cocoa, which is how we measure “dark.”
A closer look at this confectionery
Here’s your basic chocolate analysis.
All chocolate bars, and syrup, are made from the cocoa bean, also called cacao, which is the dried and fermented seed of Theobroma cacao, which consists of cocoa solids and butter. Chocolate is made from cocoa beans, which if you’ve ever bitten into one, you know it’s bitter. Very bitter.
When it comes to labeling chocolate, it’s done with a percentage such as “45 percent cocoa,” or “70 percent cocoa.”
In a 70 percent bar, which is a dark chocolate, more than two-thirds of the contents is derived from the beans, the nibs to be precise, with the remainder consisting of sugar, cocoa butter or vegetable oil. That makes dark chocolates taste less sweet to our palates than the milk chocolates, but also makes them less unhealthy (which is not the same as healthy).
There is no official U.S. recommended daily amount of flavanols, but one of the largest trials looking at their benefits used 750 mg a day with study participants. For the rest of us to get that same amount, we’d need to consume 4¾ ounces of dark chocolate, or 750 calories a day, and 2½ pounds of milk chocolate, or 5,850 calories daily. That’s a mouthful